Dispatch From the Front

April 21, 2010

And they shall be immortal, in a Really Bad Poem

I was going to start out by saying, “well I haven’t been reading much because I’ve been frantic to deploy my botanical troops before the weeds win the war,” but looking back, I see I’ve finished quite a few books.  I’m not sure how.  I don’t devote hours at a time to a book unless I am completely in its thrall.  (I once spent a whole morning darning socks just as an excuse to keep listening to the audio version of The Likeness.)  So, when did I read all these books, exactly?  All I can remember is a 20 minute sit-down with a cup of tea here (though I’ll admit I don’t look at a clock), a lunch there (I have a book stand; I do not dribble), and a few bedtime sessions.  That can’t be right.  I guess there is another way to take the expression that someone “inhales” books: not that each books is consumed in a single breath, but that she breathes them like the air.

Maybe it’s magic.

My list of books not-yet-blogged also made me think about the changes in my reading habits since I first swept out Villa Negativa and opened its doors.  I keep more books going at once, because when I finish them I’ll have to write about them.  I’ll set down Dorothy Sayer’s essays with the uncomfortable thought that I’ll have to address her rah-rah wartime Britishness, and pick up Vita Sackville-West.  Once I’ve figured out what’s going to happen to her main character, I’ll put down Vita and spend a Sunday morning inhaling (in the traditional sense) Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave.  Meanwhile, Dead Souls is (are?) taunting me in fulsome sentences, waving little tridents, trying to goad me past the third chapter, and Coronation Summer is looking all-too-demure on the bedside table now that I know (courtesy Wikipedia) Thirkell was a snob about her own books, which blows my mind.  Today I’m putting off the last quarter of The Crystal Cave, both because I don’t want it to end, and because I have already planned some stuff I could say about it in a blog entry, and I wonder if it would be cheating to start writing a review before I finished the story?

That’s the other big change.  I’ve been reading for themes and context.  Whole book-describing sentences pop into my head.  I’ve started doing sticky note tabs like I did in school.  I’ll think, “How would I describe what she’s doing with that character?  What other author does she remind me of?”  or  “Oh!  Megan Whalen Turner has totally read this!  I wonder if anyone else has noticed.  I could tie this in with something about The Thief.”

This is different from the way I generally read.  Not that I don’t read critically, but it stays inside, automatic and not at all distracting.  A background murmur.  Long thoughts play out in the shower about how Mary Stewart’s sort of landscape descriptions are a lost art, and how most modern descriptions of place are boring–why is that?  Good descriptions of place don’t have to be long, to be complete and evocative, so maybe that is the problem: most contemporary writers never learned to sketch.  They are more like pointillists, etc, etc.

The shower-thoughts are not formulations.  I may reach conclusions, but they are fluid, and half of the time I forget them afterward.  I will very, very rarely talk to Der Mann about something I’m reading, because my least favorite activity in the world is explaining things–and you can’t tell someone who hasn’t read it what you’re thinking about a book without telling them what’s in it.  We have enjoyable conversations about the books we read aloud together, but until now my private reading has been essentially private.  I mean, its essence was private.  The way I experienced books was as internal as a sore foot or the feeling of a laugh before you let it out.  You can say, “My foot hurts,” or “That was really funny,” but the other person doesn’t feel the ache you do, or the delighted squeeziness in the chest.  It’s just you and the author.  Or you and the characters.

That’s why I dropped my English major like a hot potato after my first year-and-a-half of college.  I didn’t want reading to be spoiled.  It was too important to me.  I didn’t want to meet novels with the knowledge that there was a paper to write at the end.  It was like getting a massage on a highway meridian, or never getting to see your lover except in the crowded break room on a factory floor.  It made me feel as icky as a tabloid journalist pretending to be someone’s friend for the scoop.

So, in place of English I studied Philosophy, a subject where you get to read literary texts created for the purpose of being analyzed.  (I also liked the idea of a completely useless degree, and I am a math paralytic with a fondness for the abstract.  Foolish, perverse child.)

fat philosophers have more fun

I haven’t read a smidge of philosophy since college, and remember very little of what I read there.  I only realized what sort of an education I’d received (for a long time I was under the impression, none) when I began noticing how much reading and writing philosophy had affected the way I think.  It had taken all my little analytical quirks and turned them into big analytical quirks.  In fact, it had done to me that very thing past persons feared education would do to their parishoners, serfs, and marriageable daughters.  It had taught me to think.  About everything.  In the round.

All the time.

If my experience as a reader has been private, then being a former student of philosophy has been downright isolating.  When I’m listening to the sorts of stuff people talk about when they talk about stuff, my inner commentary is a string of potential faux pas (people are deeply insulted when you notice shaky logic on both sides of a polarizing issue, they’d rather you just took a side and shouted), irrelevancies, and unfunny-to-anyone-but-me jokes.  Mostly, since I don’t enjoy revealing myself as a pedantic pariah, I keep my mouth shut.  And there is that whole thing about hating explaining myself.  Everybody else hates it too.  Conversation is not about conveying or receiving information, so explanations are beside the point.  Especially when your brain works at writing speed rather than speaking speed.

A year ago, if you told me that I would voluntarily sit down and write an essay about a book, I would have told you, no, that would be a waste of time, I’d hate it.  What I didn’t know was that writing about books could be like writing letters.  And even more amazing, getting letters back.

I utterly hatedloatheddespised writing research papers, but I used to be a big letter writer.  I stopped in my early twenties because I realized that writing letters to non-letter-writers is a burden to them.  So embarrassing!–I simply hadn’t conceived of someone not loving to get mail, because I loved it so much.  After that, I had a couple of good email correspondences that slowly dried up.  In the last several years: nada.

Letter-writing is a unique pleasure.  When you write a letter, you are making something with a definite structure, but that thing can be whatever it turns into.  If there’s a thesis it sort of just, emerges.  It reminds me of the way theses emerge in fiction.  Letters would be a perfect place to talk about fiction, if there weren’t the whole problem of explaining books to people who haven’t read them and probably won’t.  Blogging solves that problem, and also the problem of burdening non-writers with communications they can’t return.  My inner commentary, so unsuitable for conversation, is actually suitable here.

Fantastic!  But also not.  I seem to be hard wired for a certain length of literary musing.  Der Mann asked if I had ever thought about writing short interim posts and I said I had.  It makes sense to write both short and long ones, depending on how much you want to say about a book.  The problem is that once I start writing I always want to say roughly the same amount of stuff.  My letters were all the same length too.

Because I am a slow writer, this makes it impossible to do what I set out to do here: write a little something about every book.  I’m a completeist.  It niggles.  Once I’ve gone to the trouble of thinking all those distracting blog-post preparation thoughts, I feel like I’ve wasted something unless I go ahead and write the review.  I’ve missed out on a “pure” reading.  My shower thoughts have lost their comfortable idleness.

I don’t hate writing reviews, but I kind of hate what it’s done to my reading life.  If you’ve got this far you’re probably someone who has thought about how blogging has affected your reading, too–or hasn’t.  Do you like the change, or not?  What is it like for you to read a book when you are intending to blog about it?

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19 Responses to “Dispatch From the Front”

  1. Jodie said

    Hey! This was so interesting to read. Oh dear really do people actually hate getting mail? I thought they were just too busy to respond, I didn’t realise they didn’t like receiving letters. How sad for them (and I guess I’d better stop sending it).

    I am with you on the completist thing. Once I finish a book I want to write about it and worse I want to write everything I’ve thought about it. I want to do interim posts, because I love reading blogs where people do them but somehow it doesn’t feel right when I do it, it feels like cheating.

    As for reading knowing I’ll blog it I try to read much more critically. If I see a writer is making an allusion, but I don’t know what it is I’ll try to work it out. I find myself interrupting my own reading with wandering trains of connecting thought. So in some ways, hard to read when I’m thinking about blogging (usually at the begining, or end of a book) but ususally I get out of my own way in the middle.

    ‘Conversation is not about conveying or receiving information, so explanations are beside the point’ Sigh too true, the point of conversation is to talk for most people, but there’s that nice side effect of bonds being created which is worth the noise.

    • trapunto said

      I don’t know if they hate it, but it overwhelms them. Someone in my family explained to me recently that it probably went back to being forced to write thank-you notes as a child; she couldn’t get a letter and enjoy it, it was simply an edict that she had to write one in return. And it didn’t matter whether the person who wrote the letter expected a reply or not–I asked. I had always just thought of letters as gifts that don’t require thank you notes. Offerings, maybe. Compliments.

      What really illuminated the whole awkwardness to me, though, was the mother’s appalling letters in The Summer After the Funeral by Jane Gardam. My letters might strike other people as being as unanswerable and chattily solipsistic as hers.

      But don’t stop writing letters! Chances are you have gathered a cluster of letter-appreciators who would be terribly disappointed, as I would be if I stopped receiving mail from someone who has such interesting things to say as you do in your blog.

      Some people are unlucky in love. I’m unlucky in pen pals.

      “I find myself interrupting my own reading with wandering trains of connecting thought.” Yes. Exactly that. Suddenly I’m staring into space instead of at the page of the book.

  2. Nymeth said

    I noticed the same changes in my reading when I started blogging, but I actually like that it happened. Possibly this is because I’m the kind of person who has to explain everything to herself in her head. I don’t know why this is, but my feelings about something, not just books, become more real to me once I explain them to myself. I’m an over-analyser and an over-thinker 😛 Also, I followed a BA in psychology with one in English, which should tell you something about me 😛

    I completely understand how the process can feel cumbersome to others, though, and how that aloneness can be precious and not something you’d like to lose.

    PS: I’m now quite curious about Sayers’ other essays, though also worried they would disappoint me!

    • trapunto said

      “my feelings about something, not just books, become more real to me once I explain them to myself.” I am this way too, but I always wonder if the increased reality is just an illusion. Or whether I am realizing something I even want to be real! I would love to be able to try out the other way of existing, you know, just for a week or something, but the explaining is pretty much automatic for me. I know a lot of people who aren’t that way, and they seem to enjoy their own emotions as I would enjoy a thunder storm: something huge, outside themselves. Even the negative emotions.

      *Especially* the negative emotions.

      Hm. Psychology and English. If I look into my crystal ball, that makes you someone who decided English literature was an even better way to understand what makes people tick than psychology?

      I don’t know if Sayers other essays will disappoint you. Her writing won’t, but you may find some of the subject matter off-putting.

  3. Jenny said

    I have all my best ideas in the shower! Sometimes when I am stuck in a story or poem (or research paper, when I was at university), I take a shower until I get an idea of how to go forward. I think that good ideas live in the shower-head.

    Also: I love writing letters, but I always get nervous they’re inadequate. When I’m without my computer, though, I write them like mad. I was in London for a month in 2005 and wrote at least twenty letters home, to my family and then-boyfriend. Technology definitely plays a role, not just because I’m lazy about writing things longhand, but because I talk to people so often. When my loved ones are far away, we’re still chatting on Facebook, or cell phones, or whatever, so I often don’t have anything to put in the letters. I’ve already told them all my stories in some form or another.

    • trapunto said

      Sometimes I wonder what they did before showers! I know C.S. Lewis was a bath fetishist, but I don’t know whether he related it to creativity. Baths just make me torpid.

      Do you always write your letters long hand?

      Inadequate? Like, by your own standards are the recipients? Because, I would say poo on them if they judge. It came in an envelope, didn’t it? With a stamp? It’s from you? It’s gold.

      • Jenny said

        I usually write them longhand, and I feel they are inadequate – like not funny enough, like I’m not living up the standards of Great Letter Writers of Yore. 😛 These days, when I write them longhand, I am more prone to shoving them in my purse with the intention of finishing them later, and then forgetting about them for months. My friend Raksha’s living in India this year and the letters I’ve sent her have all been written on the computer & printed.

        I used to have these amazing little brown envelopes – I got them at a wee London stationer’s – that went crinkle crinkle when I stuffed my letters in. Since they ran out I have felt more and more inadequate in my letters. I feel like the crinkly brown envelopes lent the old ones legitimacy. 😛

      • trapunto said

        Clearly, you need to go back to London so you can stock up!

        I love stationary. I’m a little ashamed of that fact, because it seems so…I don’t know…3rd grade. And if it is half-sheets with a border or a decoration, they go so fast if you write a regular-length letter, you run out of the paper way before you run out of matching envelopes.

        Also, I’m afraid it strikes people as an affectation. “Look at me! I’m writing a letter by hand! On nice paper! Just like the Great Letter Writers of Yore!”

        Those Great Letter Writers of Yore are just trouble, I tell ya.

  4. zibilee said

    This was a wonderful and very thoughtful post! I do know what you mean about how having to write a review changes the way you read. Often when I am reading now, I am unable to lose myself in the narrative and just let the story slide over me. I am always concerned about how I can relay the comedy of the scene, how I will describe the plot and how I will resolve the questions that the text is asking me. I find that I am thinking the whole time, in addition to reading, and it makes reading a very different experience. To top all that off, often I am just not that crazy about a book, but I feel the need to finish in order to be able to post about my hate eloquently. It is a tall order to read and review everything that I come across. Wonderful topic and great website here! I will have to stop back to visit again!

    • trapunto said

      Thank you for the kind comment. I do love a nice eloquent hate post, so you can expect me for a visit, too. I had been reading a disappointing fantasy novel since before Christmas. I was going vivisect it’s inadequacies. Then I stopped and said, “Wait, this is stupid! I’m taking this back to the library!” and THEN I went ahead and finished it anyway, as atonement for reading it with one beady eye on my review, because it was a well-meant book.

      This is all very unlike me.

      So, do you think the change is permanent, for you?

  5. Jeanne said

    I read books that I don’t feel like talking about–in real life or on the blog–mostly the kind I devour like tv shows. I’m reading a Jonathan Kellerman right now that I don’t intend to discuss with anyone, except maybe my former psychologist friend who trades Kellerman paperbacks with me (I keep the Fayes and she keeps the Jonathans).

    Blogging hasn’t changed the way I read, except that I dog-ear or put sticky notes on pages now when I want to quote a bit in my review. Probably that’s because (as Richard Gere’s character said in Pretty Woman) I “went all the way” in school, getting a BA in English followed by an MA in Composition and Rhetoric and finishing up with a PhD in English Literature, and I was learning to teach the whole way through grad school. Teaching made me read a little differently–instead of “hey, look at this” I started to think about saying “hey, look at this because…”

    At least once during a semester, I like to point out to my students that I get to pick the books and usually I ask the questions. Especially when the question is “what is significant about…” I’m assuming that they can find something significant, because I did. At some point in the class, I try to turn that around. Today I ask my students to each pick out a passage from what we were reading and say why they think that passage is important.

    When you’re blogging, I think you’re like a teacher, telling everyone what you like (or more rarely, dislike) about the book you’ve chosen. But I do think some books are worth reading more carefully and discussing with people, and some are just to suck down like you would a cool drink on a hot day.

  6. trapunto said

    I really like what you say about some books being for one kind of reading, and some being for another. Next time I read Georgette Heyer I will just think, “lemonade.”

    “MA in Composition and Rhetoric.” Hey, my half-sister did one of those. And now she is headed cross country to get her PhD in something so arcane (though English related) the whole family has a mental block about remembering what it is, and never says the same thing twice. That’s funny, because your writing style and your sense of humor in your blog remind me a lot of her.

    I like to do dissertation astrology: So, what was your topic?

  7. Jeanne said

    18th century satire; specifically the use of ironic personal panegyric (making fun of a public figure by pretending to praise him).

  8. While my reasons are different, I can very much sympathize with your frustration – though I got behind simply because I couldn’t form my thoughts into a coherent enough ball to publish (even when I DID publish them…). It is an interesting sort of paradox. For all that comments rolls are there, blogging still feels very broadcasty and not very conversationy. There’s exceptions to that rule (loved commenting back and forth about electronics! :D), but still.

    Also, I love letters (though I’m terrible at writing them!) and always WANTED to have a pen pal. We always moved too much when I was little, I’m afraid…

    • trapunto said

      My official pen pal, obtained in 3rd grade, was a sporty Australian girl who played netball and was always talking about her budgies. I’m only surprised it lasted as long as it did, since neither of us had anything to say that made any sense to the other.

      So, perhaps you didn’t miss much?

      Except, is was nice to get the airmail envelopes full of girly stationary, and once a pair of australian flag earrings with the posts bent back for transport (my ears weren’t pierced), and another time a handkerchief with a map of australia, and another time some seed-beads she’d strung on elastic for a necklace

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